Catholic Moral Teaching: Choice
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Article Four of the Catechism of the Catholic Church contains an excellent treatment of the morality of the human act. It is summarized at the end in these short sentences:
1757 The object, the intention, and the circumstances make up the three "sources" of the morality of human acts.
1758 The object chosen morally specifies the act of willing accordingly as reason recognizes and judges it good or evil.
1759 "An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention" (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.
1760 A morally good act requires the goodness of its object, of its end, and of its circumstances together.
1761 There are concrete acts that it is always wrong to choose, because their choice entails a disorder of the will, i.e., a moral evil. One may not do evil so that good may result from it.
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Photo credit: Beth Macdonald
We live in an age that espouses a notion of freedom of choice as a power to do whatever one desires without reference to any evaluative or objective norm outside of a self-constructed individualistic compass. This view is evident in every behavior that treats the human person as some-thing to be used rather than some-one, a gift to be received. It does not free us, fulfill us, or make us happy. Nor will it lead us to holiness or heaven.
Catholic Moral teaching offers a unique insight that has enormous potential to engage a culture enamored with such a pursuit of self-fulfillment - but enslaved by making choices that lead to emptiness, division, and despair. It affirms that the very act of choosing places the person in a relationship with the object, or the subject, chosen. That which is chosen not only changes the world around the chooser but changes the person who makes the choice. In simple words, in a sense, we become what we choose.
Saint Gregory of Nyssa provided an insight concerning our choices in an ancient homily quoted approvingly by Saint John Paul II in his masterful encyclical letter on the Moral Life, Veritatis Splendor which means in English, The Splendor of Truth, and is cited in the section on the Moral Life in the Catechism of the Catholic Church :
â€˝All things are subject to change and becoming never remain constant, but continually pass from one state to another, for better or for worse.. Now human life is always subject to change; it needs to be born ever anew. But here birth does not come about by a foreign intervention, as is the case with bodily beings; it is the result of free choice. Thus we are, in a certain sense, our own parents, creating ourselves as we will, by our decisions".
What we choose helps to determine who we become. Choosing what is good changes the â€˝chooser", empowering him or her to proceed along the pathways of virtue and develop the habitus - or habits- which promote Christian character. The Catechism of the Catholic Church addresses human choice, action, and freedom: The more one does what is good, the freer one becomes. There is no true freedom except in the service of what is good and just. The choice to disobey and do evil is an abuse of freedom and leads to "the slavery of sin" (Cf. Rom 6:17) (CCC#1733).
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Saint John Paul's Letter on the Moral Life, the Splendor of Truth, responded to the continuing call of the Second Vatican Council to re-root Catholic moral teaching within the Bible, which is the "soul of theology". (Dei Verbum #24) In its first chapter, it provides an exegesis of the scriptures based on the Lord's encounter with the Rich young man within which it expounds a moral theology of choice. It was not the man's possessions that made him choose to say no to the Lord's invitation. It was his disordered relationship to them which impeded his freedom. They possessed him. He went away sad because he made the wrong choice.
From this encounter the letter develops its teaching on choice and authentic human freedom, explaining the proper development and formation of conscience in relationship to objective truth. It issues a strong reaffirmation of the Natural Moral Law.
Two years after The Splendor of Truth, John Paul released another Encyclical letter entitled Evangelium Vitae, The Gospel of Life, which continued his work of laying a firm foundation for a proper understanding of choice and the Moral Life. In that letter, he responded to the myriad of threats against the dignity of human life caused by the redefinition of the word freedom with a prophetic urgency. He warned of what he called a "counterfeit notion of freedom". He positioned this counterfeit as the root cause of what he labeled the culture of death.
Under that phrase he coalesced all the current social evils; from abortion (which is always and everywhere intrinsically evil); to modern slaveries, (including pornography and drug addiction); to disdain for the poor and a cheapening of all life as well as the foreboding momentum toward a misguided use of new medical technologies; to active and passive euthanasia and the return of eugenics.
Finally, in considering the moral life and human choice we should note the clear moral character of the teaching compiled within the Catechism of the Catholic Church released on the thirtieth anniversary of the opening of the Second Vatican Council, October 11, 1992.
Part Three of the Catechism, a section devoted specifically to a discussion of Moral theology is entitled Life in Christ. The Section treats the vocation of man to beatitude. It articulates a clear Moral theology of choice by considering the morality of human acts, the role of the passions, proper formation of the conscience and the cultivation of the virtues accompanied by the rejection of sin.
In its explanation of the morality of human acts, The Catechism offers a sobering insight concerning a wrong exercise of freedom: "Mortal sin is a radical possibility of human freedom, as is love itself." It properly insists that authentic Human Freedom cannot be realized in decisions made against God and against what is good because it is "patterned on God's freedom."
Patterned on God's freedom, man's freedom is not negated by his obedience to the divine law; indeed, only through this obedience does it abide in the truth and conform to human dignity. This is clearly stated by the Council: "Human dignity requires man to act through conscious and free choice, as motivated and prompted personally from within, and not through blind internal impulse or merely external pressure. Man achieves such dignity when he frees himself from all subservience to his feelings, and in a free choice of the good, pursues his own end by effectively and assiduously marshaling the appropriate means (VS #42).
The New Testament is filled with examples of the connection between what we choose and who we become. Two will suffice. We become adulterers when we look at a woman with lust (Mt. 5:28); what comes out of our heart (The heart is the biblical center where freedom is exercised, human choices are made and character is formed through choice) is what makes us unclean (Mk 7:14-23).
Freedom has consequences. The capacity to make choices is constitutive of our being human persons and reflects an aspect of the Imago Dei, the Image of God, present within us. The Fathers of the Second Vatican Council wrote in their document on the Mission of the Church: Authentic freedom is an outstanding manifestation of the divine image within man (GS #17).
Thus, it can be said that freedom has a moral constitution. Socially, it must be exercised in reference to the truth concerning the human person, the family, and our obligations in solidarity to one another and to the common good. That is why the fullness of authentic human freedom is ultimately found only in a relationship with the God who is its source and who alone can set us free. When we choose the truth which He reveals we find the fullness of freedom.
St. John 8:32 records these words of Jesus concerning this connection between freedom and truth, Jesus then said to those Jews who believed in him, "If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."
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In The Splendor of Truth. The late pope warned of what he called the "death of true freedom". (#40) This concern is also addressed repeatedly in The Gospel of Life where he writes of freedom's "essential link with truth" and "inherently relational dimension." (#19)
In his later encyclical letter on Faith and Reason, Fides et Ratio, he wrote: It is not just that freedom is part of the act of faith: it is absolutely required. Indeed, it is faith that allows individuals to give consummate expression to their own freedom. Put differently, freedom is not realized in decisions made against God. For how could it be an exercise of true freedom to refuse to be open to the very reality which enables our self-realization? Men and women can accomplish no more important act in their lives than the act of faith; it is here that freedom reaches the certainty of truth and chooses to live in that truth (#13).
All of this invites us to pause and reflect upon our own lives, and our own choices. What are we choosing and who are we becoming?